In 2016 alone, the federal government spent $58.8 billion with minority or woman owned small businesses and another $16.3 billion with businesses run by disabled veterans. The vast majority of these prime contract awards were specifically not the result of open market, merit based competition. Rather, it was the result of the government openly steering more government dollars toward groups otherwise disadvantaged in society. While there is some debate over the effectiveness of some of these programs, it clearly gives billions of reasons for the disadvantaged to start a small business and get a leg up on work with the government.
A great gig if you can get it, right? So great, non-qualifying persons and companies are willing to defraud the government to take advantage of these programs. The methods for this crime can be very simple; some programs allow contractors to self-certify as disadvantaged small business with no third-party review. Contractors can simply falsely certify disadvantaged status and move ahead. In contrast, some schemes require greater complexity; winning the award with a company owned by a qualifying person but then funneling the money and the work through a series of other non-qualifying entities. A recent string of high-profile arrests and seizures shows this may be a surprisingly large portion of the awards set aside for disadvantaged or veteran owned business.
In October of 2017, four men plead guilty to participating in such a scheme to obtain construction contracts in South Carolina. According to the DOJ, for over a dozen years “the defendants hid the fact that construction companies were not controlled by minorities, veterans, women or the disabled in order to receive the lucrative contracts.” While the contracted work was performed properly, the scam took in over $350 million intended for minority or woman groups.
A similar action is developing in Milwaukee, where the government has begun seizing the assets of a contractor they suspect has won almost $300 million in construction contracts meant for minorities and military veterans. The fact these frauds were ever discovered is almost as shocking as the amounts. Both examples involved minorities, women, or disabled veterans falsely claiming they owned a business in order to receive the government’s favor. However, the businesses were instead run by a spouse or friend that took the lion’s share of the profits. Without an insider blowing the whistle on this type of intimate activity, it is difficult to imagine how the government could ever detect it.
In the above examples, one contractor is facing two years in jail, while the other has had his home and cars seized pending criminal charges. All this despite government agreement that the contracts were performed well, even some with honors. Regardless, this post-harm punishment seems to be the government’s only option for deterrence and is therefore justifiably harsh. The Small Business Administration works with the Justice Department to detect such abuse, but still primarily relies on reporting by whistle blowers or competitors. Until a more robust system of detection is organized, we will likely never truly know how big of a problem this fraud is.
About the Author:
Tyler Freiberger is an associate attorney at Centre Law & Consulting primarily focusing on employment law and litigation. He has successfully litigated employment issues before the EEOC, MSPB, local counties human rights commissions, the United States D.C. District Court, Maryland District Court, and the Eastern District of Virginia.